Sunday, November 8, 2009

Who are "the Unbelievers"?

I have been following a discussion on beliefnet in which an apparently Christian poster quotes this passage from the Koran.

"O you who believe! do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other; and whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely he is one of them; surely Allah does not guide the unjust people." Qur'an 5:51

and claims this is proof that "Islam is against the rest of humanity".

The Author admits that "I have heard that particular Ayah explained as not applying to all Jews and Christians" , but adds "there is no general consensus about that in the various sects of Islam, nor is there anything to conclusively prove otherwise in Hadith or other sources, so it seems correct to take that literally."

He/She contrasts this with the following passage in the Bible

Philippians 2: 3,4

Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others

Overall the tone on this post is quite reasonable and patient, although you might not think so from the quotes I've made here. This provides one more piece of evidence for my main criticism of this post: the phrase "take that literally", which I hear so much from those in the Abrahamic traditions. I think that phrase can only mean "whatever meaning pops into my head, when I read it 2000 years after it was written." Meaning is always determined by context, so if you want to know what any sentence means you have to know when it was said and what was happening at the time. When these phrases came to Muhammad, he was surrounded by Arabs of 3 different religions (Christians, Jews and Pagans) that were actively trying to kill him and his community. He had preached peace for the years prior to that, and his community needed to realize that in this case those teachings of peace had to be temporarily suspended to insure the survival of the community. There are several passages describing characteristics of "The Jews", "The Christians" or "The Pagans", which refer to specific actions performed by those particular Jewish, Christian, and Pagan Arabs, which show that these were the only Pagans, Jews and Christians he was referring to. Some translations of the Koran translate the word I refer to as "Pagan" with the word "Unbeliever", which causes even greater confusion. Many Christians think that this term refers to them as well, even though distinctions are made between Christians, Jews, and Unbelievers in the complete text. Ambiguity in translation causes almost as many problems as ambiguity of context.

The author of this post is quite right that there are some Muslims who interpret these passages as applying to all non-Muslims. I would encourage all Muslims to actively speak up against these interpretations of the Koran. All texts are subject to multiple interpretations, and a legitimate interpretation would have to harmonize with the overall message of the Koran. My interpretation above harmonizes with the famous "Let there be no compulsion in religion" sura, so it seem to me that it is the most rational one to accept.

The fact that there is more than one interpretation of a text does not mean that any interpretation is acceptable. There is no legitimate way you can accept Woody Allen's interpretion of the Talmud as saying that one should only avoid eating pork in certain restaurants. The most widely accepted "literal" interpretion of Sura 4:89 (that Apostates should be killed) is just plain wrong, even though many Muslims and Islamophobes interpret it that way. To see this, you don't have to recreate the context of 7th century Arabia. You only have to read two or three passages on either side of the quote. Taken 'literally", i.e. out of context, it means exactly the opposite of what it actually says. Check my post on Sura 4:89 for a further explanation.

P.S. I also don't think it was fair to compare Islam and Christianity by quoting the worst passage one can find in the Koran and the best passage in the Bible. There are plenty of passages in the Bible that are scarier than that (Esther ordering the slaughter of all of Haman's people). And if you look at the history of the Islamic empires, you'll see that the Muslims had a much better record for tolerance that the Christians (Compare Spain before and after Christian rule.)


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hi All, my name is Abdullah and I am a regular member on beliefnet; I've just been alerted to this site by Teed and see what a great site it is, trying to counter misconceptions of islam and give everyone a fair and informed view of it;

    I thank Muslim Bhudist for his good work here and I hope to help with a little of my contributions too and look forward to reading everyone's opinions

    Well I'll start of with the above verse of not making Christians and Jews as friends; basically mainstream Islam interprets it in two ways; one is that it is understood as not making non-Muslims into very close intimate friends, for otherwise Muslims can grow to love the non-Islamic beliefs of the non-Muslims too and this could end up being detrimental to their own faith, and the second view is that this verse only refers to hostile non-Muslims who wage war and show great hostility to Muslims for their religion and not the friendly non-Muslims

    there is a verse in the Quran that puts the above verse into perspective and it is very self-explanatory too and it goes like this:

    *{Allah does not forbid you respecting those who have not made war against you on account of [your] religion, and have not driven you forth from your homes, that you show them kindness and deal with them justly; surely Allah loves the doers of justice.}* (Al-Mumtahanah. God only forbids you to turn in friendship towards those who fight against you because of [your] faith, and drive you forth from your homelands, or aid [others] in driving you forth: and as for those [from among you] who turn towards them in friendship; it is they, they who are truly wrongdoers!}* (Al-Mumtahanah 60:8-9)

    these verses clearly show that Muslims are to be kind and just to any non-Muslim who is not waging war on them for their religion or who has not kicked them out of their homes, so all verses such as verse 5:51 ['do not take Christians and jews as friends', etc] will be put into context with these one's

    here is a link that will explain in detail, about how Muslim are directed to interact with non-Muslims, as derived from the Islamic teachings:

    hope this helps


  3. oops sorry Teed; deleted it once and tried to correct it but your name has remained as 'Muslim Bhudist'on the second paragraph too ;]

    is there anyway one can edit the comments after it has been posted?

  4. On the Surah mentioned above, what is translated as "friends" is actualy in Arabic "awliyah" which more correctly means "protectors", "role models". For example, in Islam a womans legal guardian is called her "wali"(singular of "awliyah"). Friendship with Jews and Christians is perfectly fine in Islam, even to the most conservative Muslims, as long as we dont emulate them. The Prophet(SAW) said: "Whoever imitates a people is one of them"

  5. I said above " I've just been alerted to this site by Teed and see what a great site it is, trying to counter misconceptions of islam and give everyone a fair and informed view of it;

    I thank Muslim Bhudist [Teed] for his good work here"

    Just like to clarify those statements of mines as I wouldn't want people to think it is a endorsement of Teeds posts; it was basically an acknowledgement of Teeds good intentions to try and correct ... distorted views of Islam, however I do see that most of his views are from severely distorted sources themselves so inshALlah i will try and help with authentic and mainstream sources

  6. Thanks to Nnormani for his helpful and friendly comments. Most of my posts will involve my memory of things I have read, so I may have certain things wrong. I am grateful for any corrections. However, I am also making suggestions for alternative interpretations of Islamic sources, many of which will not be "authentic and mainstream". The Koran is capable of many different interpretations, that is why it can be applied to so many people's lives throughout the centuries. Because I am not a Muslim myself, these are only suggestions, but I hope they will be helpful for Muslims who are using the Koran and the Hadith as a guide in their lives